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From ‘Is this You’ to ‘This Is Me’

Kabul: facial recognition

The security protocols for working in Afghanistan dictate that the driver doesn’t hold up the name of the person they are picking up, but but instead one that advertises the company he works for. It’s an invitation to start a conversation and under the midday heat of an airport parking lot we both want to rely on more nuanced cues to understand that we are in fact who we say we are. In every context there is a cost to getting it wrong, in Afghanistan the cost is higher than most.

The shift from ‘is this you?’ to ‘this is me’ is on one level a subtle distinction, but one that is indicative of some major social shifts that will occur in our oh-so-near future perfect. I’m talking about facial recognition in the palm of your hand – the ability to point a camera at a face and know, within a reasonable timeframe and range of certainty who it is that you or the person holding the camera is looking at.

Facial recognition is already a common enough feature in consumer photo archiving software and more military grade versions are hooked into CCTV systems around the world, but the big, big shift will occur when it can be used by anyone with a half-decent camera phone and an internet connection.

A number of BigCorps will have been considering their offering in this space for a while each with their own perspective on how it will be used; and each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Google’s main advantages in delivering the service are infrastructure; scale and context. It already has much of the infrastucture in place to serve up timely relevant search results/advertising – and this is one application where the shortest distance to the cloud will be an advantage over rivals; crunching large datasets is in its DNA and the more data that is collected the better its algorithms will become; and lastly it knows so much much about you, and the tens of millions of people just like you to be able to serve up something both accurate and ‘interesting’. (As a comparison – Facebook’s relative advantage is that it has a legion of volunteers who diligently meta-data photos – you probably think of them as users and their output as user generated content but its nothing less than crowdsourced data management). But the reason why Google and other large players are unlikely to lead the charge into this space is simple: there is too much at stake for another serious privacy screw-up in the hearts and minds of consumers, and under the watchful glare of the media and regulators.

I’m convinced that this is a technology where the gulf between those that get it, and those that don’t will be more larger and more painful than anything from recent memory. On the one side they’ll be a generation that has grown up digital, that is using the technology to explore their own identity and define the boundaries of their nacent social network – an exercise that often involves the rapid collection and ignoring/dumping of connections; and on the other side there will be people who will see this as a significant erosion of their privacy. I suspect that many of the media who would normally file a hey-the-kids-are-alright article will be overly unsettled by a technology that when applied, is literally in-yer-face. This technology changes the dynamics of many contexts – knowing that someone is a journalist before they approach you is particularly significant.

So who will be the first to bring this to market? My money for early success is on a start-up (nothing to lose) developing for Android (a marketplace with limited moral oversight, a decent set of APIs, global momentum, big in mobile), probably with their roots in Japan or South Korea (strong cultures of camera phone use, different attitudes to privacy, and tweens that consistently kick tech’s raw fleshy butt).

Thoughts for today as a before I turn my attention to the more pressing matter of our research: how do the dynamics of our relationships change when the ease at which we can be ‘captured’ affects people’s willingness and ability to engage? Imagine a room full of socialising teens/networking business people and track the dynamics of those whose qq/facebook/google me/gree/linked-in profile can be pulled up in real time with those that can’t.

When the ability to find the online you is dependent on how you look – forget dressing for success. Think dresssing for SEO.

Related: retrospective facial recognition.